An Ash Wednesday Experience: What I Learned by Wearing Ashes in a Secular Space

I always look forward to Ash Wednesday as a launchpad for the holiest time of the year. Leading up to this day a few years ago, things were a little different. At the time, I was nervous about how my coworkers in the business world would view me if I walked around all day with ashes. Countless Catholics have also, no doubt, been given quizzical looks and received numerous questions on this day regarding why they have dirt on their face. 

Several years ago, I worked for a construction management firm in New York City. This was a short endeavor I embarked on before returning to teaching theology at my current school. I left my original position at a Catholic elementary school in order to provide a more secure financial future for myself and my fiancé at the time. While working there I experienced, for the first time, what it was like to wear ashes in a secular arena. In Catholic school, as both a student and as a teacher, it is simply expected that you will have the mark on your forehead. 

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However, as an adult wearing ashes in the workplace, I felt like an outcast. I found that many people don’t know what Lent is, let alone when it is, or why someone would wear ashes on their face as a religious symbol bringing them closer to God. That day in the city, I felt an honest concern about what others would think. Would they think I was crazy or a religious fanatic? Would I be looked down upon because I wore my faith on my sleeve…or rather, my head?

What actually happened was far less dramatic. Most people simply noticed what I was doing as something different, while a few asked me curious questions about my Catholic faith. At first, these encounters caught me off guard, but I quickly realized that they were merely investigating what I was up to. 

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“Why does your church do this?” one person asked. I responded that this was the first day of preparing for what would happen during Holy Week. In so many words, I related the fact that it marked the lead-up to our celebration of God’s rescue mission for human hearts through Christ’s suffering in order to spend eternity with all of us. That during Lent, we are invited to offer God aspects of our life so that he can make us whole. 

“Why ashes?” was another question I received. I outlined the prayer which the priest or minister invokes when placing the ashes on our foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” The first option declares the unchanging fact that we all came from nothing and will one day pass away from this earth. While this brings rational worry and anxiety, it must be viewed in light of Jesus’ resurrection and the fact that death cannot defeat us. The second option highlights the understanding that the Christian life is a call to not only be rescued but to aid in rescuing others through our holiness and witness of life. 

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Following these conversations, I felt as if I had relayed to my coworkers what was most important to me. It also created space to have more conversations about important faith topics, and further convinced me that organic conversations were the roadmap to evangelization. In hindsight, these surprising Ash Wednesday conversations also led me to further investigate where God was calling me to be, and brought me back to the classroom to aid others in seeing the love that is personified in Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection. I realized that teaching was where I needed to be, and that love is what we are called to mirror on Ash Wednesday.

While the reception of ashes will be different this year, it is still a time to acknowledge that we are sinners in need of repentance and renewal. We will receive ashes, most of us through the sprinkling of them on the top of our heads instead of them being placed on our foreheads. While this is different, the effect and challenge remains the same. 

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Perhaps this year, more than any other before, is an opportunity to show that we follow Jesus not only by what we wear on our foreheads for a few hours, but also through the compassionate words and actions of sacrifice we make each day. Let us accept the mission of rescue that God is placing us on, and let us allow his victory to reign in our lives by engaging in conversations which may make us uneasy, and developing a habit of interacting with others through authentic and organic relationships. Then the power of Ash Wednesday will ring true in our world, this year as much as ever.